Throughout his rich, creative life Richard James Allen has embodied many forms of artistry, from choreographer, performer, filmmaker and scholar, to acclaimed Australian poet, beginning his long list of publications and awards in the early 1980s.
Nearly 40 years later his tenth book of poetry, Fixing the Broken Nightingale, from Flying Island Books, is a journey from the comical and personal to the profound and provoking. Fixing the Broken Nightingale moves through five sections of poetry plus a prologue and epilogue, each focusing on a theme and creating an overall snowball effect from the internal to the universal.
In the first section titled ‘Natural disasters’, Allen gives the reader a quirky glimpse into day-to-day life, love, and creativity. It is as if Allen has sat down with the reader in a busy coffee shop after many months distance and plunged into discussions of lost umbrellas, tattered books, street-walking drug addicts and lucky pennies.
Throughout the second section, ‘Unanswered questions’, Allen holds our hand through a lifetime of love, stopping to focus our attention on sex and suffering through visceral imagery and structure. Form becomes an important technique in poems such as ‘Cradled in the elbow of time and space’, and ‘It doesn’t take long to forget’, a prose poem of energetic run-on sentences in oppressive block-text.
Sections ‘Occasional truths’ and ‘Flickering enlightenment’ confront death, aging, and insignificance. Here Allen takes each reader’s head in his hands and gently repositions our view, looking out of ourselves and making us feel small and dark like, ‘being inside / a cathedral built / of souls’ or falling ‘between the hand and the heart… because it’s easier than answering such questions’.
Allen describes his final section, ‘A scheme for brightness’, as an affirmation of art (that ‘Behind the thin mask of art / is the nothing. Nothing.’). However, it speaks also as an affirmation of love. The reader is led to consider that throughout the previous sections’ heartache and loss, what is ultimately important is ‘the greater love that passes through us, that binds all things’.
Fixing the Broken Nightingale first comically points a finger at the reader’s chest and then directs their gaze to the dark firmament of death, doubt, and smallness above them, leaving you with a feeling of having sped through life in a mere hundred pages.
Kyra Bandte is a 22-year old writer and reader from Wollongong, NSW. She graduated from creative writing and English literatures at UOW and now works full-time as a content writer in Sydney. Kyra won the Questions Writing Prize in 2012, has been published in Seizure, Space Place & Culture, and Tide, and writes/edits for online literary magazine Writer’s Edit.